The National Institute on Drug Abuse has revised one of its foundational publications – Drugs, Brain and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. The online guidebook, also available as a pdf, provides a comprehensive guide to what NIDA does – improve the scientific understanding of addiction and promote better evidence-based prevention, treatment, and policy.
This booklet aims to fill that knowledge gap by providing scientific information about the disease of drug addiction, including the many harmful consequences of drug abuse and the basic approaches that have been developed to prevent and treat the disease. At the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), we believe that increased understanding of the basics of addiction will empower people to make informed choices in their own lives, adopt science-based policies and programs that reduce drug abuse and addiction in their communities, and support scientific research that improves the Nation’s well-being.
It’s interesting to see the tensions in the document in both promoting the science and trying to communicate with the public in an effective manner. For example, in describing drugs and the brain, “pleasure” takes main stage, with people characterized as “not thinking.” So, our base impulses, our emotions, overcome our rationality – a very old folk-model of Western psychology. And that is coupled to a more processual and mechanistic view about what dopamine actually does, “Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered.”
How do drugs work in the brain to produce pleasure?
Most drugs of abuse directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this system, which rewards our natural behaviors, produces the euphoric effects sought by people who abuse drugs and teaches them to repeat the behavior.
How does stimulation of the brain’s pleasure circuit teach us to keep taking drugs?
Our brains are wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it. Because drugs of abuse stimulate the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way.
The online version is full of links to other publications from NIDA, so it’s the one I suggest you peruse. But the pdf can also be useful.
NIDA: Drugs, Brains and Behavior – The Science of Addiction (online)